Rwanda 'Turning' Its Back on French Language
P. Kerim Friedman
kerim.list at oxus.net
Tue Sep 28 13:10:34 UTC 2004
Rwanda 'Turning' Its Back on French Language
Since the 1994 genocide, relations between France and Rwanda have been
chilly due to France’s links to the Hutu-dominated regime which incited
KIGALI, Sep 20 (IPS) - Up to now, France seems unwilling to come to
terms with the fact that the former rebel movement, the Rwanda
Patriotic Front (RPF), led by exiled Tutsis mainly from neighbouring
Uganda, is now in control in the tiny central African country.
In July 1994, Rwanda, whose official language had been French since
independence in 1962, decreed that all laws be published in both French
and English and that daily transactions take place in either.
Although former president Juvenal Habyarimana was a faithful ally of
Paris and a great supporter of the French-speaking world, the RPF
leadership is leaning toward English and forging relations with
countries that speak it.
On July 30, the government formed a special commission to delve into
France’s role in the genocide, during which 800,000 Tutsis and
politically moderate Hutus were slaughtered by pro-government Hutu
militias called Interahamwe (or those who fight together in
Three days later, France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a
statement which simply said it had ‘’noted’’ the decision of the
Rwandan government to create such a commission. But most Rwandans
believe that their government’s action could exacerbate relations with
France, to which they still feel attached because of a common language.
The government of Rwanda has accused France of training and arming the
Interhamwe and, between June and July 1994, of launching a humanitarian
mission known as ‘’Operation Turquoise’’, which instead protected the
genocidal army as they retreated from advancing RPF troops.
Commemorating the tenth anniversary of the genocide in April this
year, Rwanda’s strained relations with France were obvious. France sent
its assistant minister of foreign affairs to participate, while Belgium
dispatched its prime minister and ten other African countries their
heads of state. France’s sending of such a low-ranking representative
was perceived by Rwanda as a slap in the face.
President Paul Kagame’s harsh speech did nothing to promote
reconciliation. He called the French ‘’criminals who refuse to
acknowledge their role in the genocide and ask for forgiveness’’.
A month before the ceremony, the French daily, ‘’Le Monde’’, printed
extracts from an earlier judicial inquiry that implicated Kagame and
the RPF in the Apr. 6, 1994 attack on President Habyarimana’s airplane,
which triggered the genocide. The allegations were denied by Rwandan
Rwanda’s creation of the commission of inquiry seemed to have opened a
new episode in the long line of mistrust between Paris and Kigali.
‘’It’s a bit like a woman who pretends she wants a divorce, but she
doesn’t really want one,’’ says Valerie Gatabazi of Duterimbere (let’s
forge ahead in Kinyarwanda), a non-governmental organisation (NGO).
Yet France and Rwanda do not seem ready for divorce. After all, French
is the second most spoken language in Rwanda after Kinyarwanda. It’s
used in government and schools. It’s spoken fluently by eight percent
of Rwanda’s population as compared with only three percent for English,
according to official statistics.
In more than 95 percent of the country’s 350 secondary schools, French
is the medium of instruction, although always accompanied by an
alternative English instructional programme or intensive English
language courses. Anyone applying to university must speak both English
and French, each of which is used as the medium of instruction.
All cabinet ministers, as well as senior civil servants, must speak
both languages. Even Paul Kagame has spent the past few years learning
French. His wife, Jeanette, who lived in Burundi for several years, is
Despite the acrimonious relations, Rwanda continues to receive the
largest aid from France in the sub-region. ‘’The total amount of aid
France provided Rwanda in 2003 was much higher than that given to the
Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi, for example,’’ a French
diplomatic told IPS, without disclosing the amount.
In July 1994, France was the first western country to reopen its
embassy in Kigali after the 1990-1994 conflict. And Kagame’s attendance
of the 22nd France-Africa Summit in Paris in February 2003 seemed
Many Rwandans believe that for Kigali to insist too much in its spat
with France will ultimately be self-defeating. ‘’France is a great
power, and it’s not in our interest to be too annoying,’’ says Gedeon
Habimana of the Rwandan Alliance for Human Rights (ARDHO), a local NGO
based in Kigali.
Right now, Rwandans are on tenterhooks to see who will be named to the
commission of inquiry, which will probably be set up by the end of the
year. It will be made up of ‘independents’. And its first report will
be anticipated in Rwanda. But in France, as elsewhere in Europe, doubts
will be cast on its independence.
‘’The commission will not really have that much to do since France’s
responsibility in the 1994 genocide will come out in the evidence
itself. It will simply be a question of establishing a clear and
precise proof,’’ says Julien Kayitaba, an official at the Rwandan
Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture
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